When my son was 7, I had no idea what would happen if I told everyone that we were stuck in the Emergency Room for more than a week, waiting for an inpatient psychiatric bed to become available for him.
I didn’t know how friends and neighbors would react when my son was 8 years old and I shared that in our house, a tough parenting week meant needing to call 911 to have police assistance for everyone’s safety. Or that these days, I’m on a first-name basis with our town’s police captain.
This past week, I didn’t know what would happen if I decided to tell others that now, at age nine, my son has been pondering suicide for the first time.
I’ve talked with so many moms of kids with mental illness or chronic conditions who say that they feel alone or unsupported. So I have wondered again and again along the way – if I ask for help, will I receive it?
And I’ve watched other women I love to wonder about this question, too, in their own lives.
We go through it as new moms – isolation, overwhelm, and care-taking exhaustion. Or as mothers grieving the loss of a pregnancy or a child. We feel it as mothers who are also daughters, caring for our own sick parents or mourning their deaths. We wonder – who can take care of us?
But mostly, powering through feels like the only option for most women.
I know one special needs mom who feels desperate for some help. I asked her whether she’s ever actually asked anyone for what she needs – help with a dinner now and then, a load of dishes, or some extra hands on deck during a medical crisis. When she said no, I asked why. Simple, she said. She’d feel like a failure.
We’re taught to be self-sufficient. So if we need help getting dinner on the table, or a ride to school for our kids, well, then, we’re not even handling the basics of our job description. Need to vent about how hard this mothering thing is? We’re not appreciating our amazing child enough. Medical bills piling up that we can’t afford? Deadbeat.
It’s hard to know sometimes who’s judgmental voices we’re hearing. I think more often than not, though, we’re only hearing our own.
Some moms quietly re-post those lists – “10 Things You Can Do To Help a Special Needs Mom” or “10 Ways to Help a Friend Who Just Had Her First Baby” or “What To Say To a Mom After She Miscarries.” And we secretly hope that someone will read the list, then read our mind, then know that number seven is exactly what we need. And we’ll never have to ask for it or admit that we needed it in the first place.
Maybe it’s because I was a professional fundraiser in that long ago lifetime before I had kids, but I’m pretty sure the difference between having help and going without it boils down to one thing. We don’t get what we don’t ask for.
Truthfully, sometimes we don’t even get what we do ask for. But if we can skip taking that personally, and keep asking others when someone says “no” – the chances are good that we end up getting the support we need.
I’ll be honest – I was way more comfortable being the charitable one before I had kids than I have felt accepting others’ generosity in the years since.
But here’s the thing. Motherhood has basically been kicking my butt since I started doing it. I’ve had to become an expert at the humility, grace, and gratitude it takes to just put myself out there, and say very openly, “I need help.”
You see, I nodded with total understanding when I read the article I Have a Difficult Baby. My first child was only soothed when he was bouncing on a yoga ball and contained in a Moby wrap while listening to the dulcet tones of a very loud vacuum cleaner for hours on end. The friends who fed me and bounced him were priceless.
Then in the four months after giving birth to my second child two and a half years later, I had an unexpected pregnancy, miscarriage and emergency appendectomy. One dear friend nursed my newborn, who had never even tried a bottle at that point, all night while I recovered from surgery in the hospital. Again. Priceless.
I somehow managed to run a successful business and homeschooled two kids for the next few years, until my son’s mental health reached a crisis point by age seven. By eight, he was diagnosed with the bipolar disorder that runs in my family and had been hospitalized five times in six months. Appointments, bureaucracy, therapies, and advocacy took over my life. And parenting a child with mental illness – well, that’s an experience that kicks everyone’s butt. Here’s what happened, though, when we shared our experiences and asked for help once again:
During that week we spent waiting in the ER, more than fifty friends, family members, and acquaintances sent LEGO kits to help my son stay occupied. As I opened up about parenting a son with bipolar disorder, I found lots of friends who are happy to be on call for our daughter during her brother’s crises. We no longer scramble to figure out her care in those situations, she feels less stress and my husband doesn’t have to skip out on work so frequently. My friends, family and business partners rallied around me, aware that I have been working overtime to support my kid’s mental health. In recent days, they’ve sent flowers, groceries, takeout and an enormous amount of chocolate. Their love sustains me as I support my son. Along the way, our isolation disappeared. People reach out to me regularly with stories about themselves, their kids, their parents, or their siblings. I’ve learned that mental health crises and hospitalizations, even pediatric ones, are pretty darned common. Just incredibly hidden.
No one reads our minds. We’ve had no fairy godmother who appeared on our doorstep to make everything easier. And in fact, things are still pretty hard a lot of the time! But frankly, I’m not sure I would have survived, let alone found my way to living out some of my own dreams recently if I hadn’t learned to ask for help and figured out how to let our community support us